I imagine a lot of people had Matt Bickford figured out.
Born in the Binghamton, N.Y., area (specifically Endwell) Matt lived there through the 8th grade, along with his parents, and his older brother and older sister. When the IBM plant shut down there was a mass exodus from the area, which included Matt’s family (his father worked for IBM). They ended up in Hyde Park, N.Y., in the Poughkeepsie area.
Matt played sports. Mainly football and lacrosse. A little basketball. “Being tall was always a handicap because you ended up being the first picked and it led to a lot of disappointment,” he says, laughing.
Matt attended Yale University, played football (he was a lineman) and intended to study math or economics. But through friendships with older football players he learned that he could get the job he wanted without spending four years immersed in math. He liked history, reading and writing, so he declared history as a major. “Going off to Wall Street was the goal,” he says. “Medical school, law school or Wall Street was the general goal of everybody that I was acquainted with at school.”
And so, that’s what he did. Three months after graduation he landed a job at a prestigious finance firm in Philadelphia where he worked his way up to becoming a market maker. He worked as a proprietary trader in most circumstances, but as a block trader in others, where folks from hedge funds or mutual funds would call Matt and ask for a price on varying sizes or larger lots, ranging 50,000 to 100,000 shares of stock or larger. Using the company’s owners’ money, Matt and his colleagues directly participated in making the literal market. And he was good at it.
“The company that I worked for was actually a pretty awesome company,” Matt says. “The way that they taught risk tolerance, taking on and betting and playing the market, was through poker.” Keep in mind that this was before the poker craze of the mid-2000s.
The company didn’t seek out finance majors or economics majors. Rather they wanted employees with a clean slate of knowledge who were willing to adopt their strategy — people who played sports (like Matt), or were into games like poker, backgammon, Magic the Gathering and chess. They recruited from the World Series of Poker and gaming conferences. And in the beginning of Matt’s employment, he, and all his colleagues, were required to play poker — against each other and their bosses — for hours.
“Most things were taught at the poker table,” Matt says. “Whether it was risk tolerance or betting strategies or just learning how to gauge not only what you’re doing but what you think the other person is doing or what you think the other person thinks you’re doing. All that back and forth of thought and being able to follow your thought process to define your own thought process, all that was done through hours and hours and hours of seven-card stud.”
Matt married his wife, Molly, in June 2001. Molly grew up in a small town in Connecticut called Haddam Neck, and Matt likes to joke that 10 percent of its population is related to his wife. Because of this, Matt and Molly made the trek from Philadelphia to Haddam Mack often, visiting Molly’s family.
Let’s pause here. Near the end of our interview Matt was talking about his future and his interest in custom mouldings. Even in high-end construction, stock moulding is the norm. But for a nominal amount of money, Matt says, it’s easy to make custom moulding that fits a room. The angle of presentation for moulding can and should vary in a room with an 8-foot ceiling versus a room with a 10-foot ceiling versus a room with a 12-foot ceiling. It’s just that most people don’t realize it.
End pause. Matt and his family are making week-long visits to Haddam Neck several times a year. During one of these visits they see a longtime family friend — Don Boule. Don had a workshop and in it, he was building a sleigh bed.
“It was just one of those things that I had never considered, despite how many museums or houses I had been in,” Matt says. “It just never really occurred to me that you could make these things.”
Up until this point, Matt was stock moulding. He was a good student, who played sports in high school and college, attended Yale University and landed an impressive job at a Philadelphia finance firm. He and Molly were growing their family with kids. He was living the life he had dreamed of, the life everyone thought he would.
But the visit to Don’s shop changed Matt. On the way home to Philadelphia he bought a miter saw. He soon added a router, table saw, jointer, planer, band saw and dust collector. He started making things and then, during his family’s week-long visits to Connecticut, he would spend the week working in Don’s shop, knocking off corners and sanding.
Don favors Dunlap-style furniture. He had made several armed Chippendale chairs, and one of those chairs became Matt’s goal. “Every project that I made as a hobbyist was geared toward being able to make a chair like that with the joinery and the carving and everything else,” Matt says. “It’s funny, because I really like the style, but it’s more that I like making it, I guess, than actually having 24 or 36 ball-and-claw feet around my house. It’s just fascinating to be able to make something that has that level of detail and intricacy. I’m just still fascinated that you can make this stuff by hand.”
The further Matt got into his hobby, the more he found himself copying — copying grain direction, proportions, curves, carvings, everything. But he couldn’t always copy mouldings. Even though he owned 20-30 router bits, those bits weren’t able to produce everything. And so he’d have to make sacrifices.
Through Larry Williams (who is now a planemaker with Old Street Tools Inc.) Matt became aware of hollows and rounds as a means of being able to make any moulding. Matt bought a half set of antique hollows and rounds, which he tried to tune — but he could never get them working the way he expected them to work.
Then Larry, through Lie-Nielsen, came out with a DVD on making moulding planes. Lie-Nielsen also started producing and selling tapered moulding iron blanks and floats. Something clicked. “Just like I had never really considered making furniture by hand, up until that point I had never considered making moulding planes by hand,” Matt says.
Around this time Matt had major back surgery. “I wasn’t able to lift anything for months and months so I decided to make my own planes because it was a small enough piece that I was able to lift it and work with it,” Matt says. “I made a bunch for myself and the first ones that I made for myself worked better than any antique tool that I had tuned up to that stage.”
During this time Matt was a member of the Montgomery County Woodworkers’ Guild in Pennsylvania. Matt took his planes to a meeting and there he met Chuck Bender (now of 360 Woodworking), who asked Matt if he’d make him some. “I said, ‘Nope. I’m never doing that again. I have mine and I’m not going through that process again.’”
About two years later Matt ran into Chuck at a Woodworking in America Conference in Philadelphia. Again, Chuck asked Matt if he’d make him some planes. This time, things were different. The day before, Matt had quit his job.
“Some people last six months and some people last an entire career,” Matt says about the field of trading and finance. “I lasted 9-1/2 years before I decided that I had enough. I kind of concluded that nobody should feel the way you would sometimes feel at 9:35 in the morning. I enjoyed the arguments. I enjoyed the back and forth and the swings of emotion earlier on but towards the end the good days just weren’t as good as the bad days were bad. So I walked away from that.”
It was 2009 and Matt was going to take a one-month vacation. He and his family were going to do all the things in Philadelphia they never did while living there, before moving to Molly’s hometown, Haddam Neck, Conn.
But Matt never took that vacation. Instead he made planes for Chuck in exchange for carving lessons. “I was never really able to translate the acanthus leaves that I saw in the Philadelphia Museum of Art into my own work and he was running his acanthus workshop at the time so I went up and carved with him in the mornings and then I would go home and work on his planes at night,” Matt says. “Never really got the house ready for sale,” he adds, laughing.
Matt and his family moved to Connecticut, and all the while Matt was trying to figure out what to do with his life. He decided to contact the six people who had reached out to him over the years, asking him if he would make them planes. He contacted them all at once, hoping one would say yes. Five said yes. “I was immediately overextended and much to my parents’ chagrin I stopped looking for a job and started doing this.”
In a world where so many think stock moulding is the only option, Matt recognized the importance of the angle of presentation based on the height of the ceiling in a room. Matt was stock moulding in room with 12-foot ceilings. It wasn’t right.
Seven years later, Matt’s still making planes.
“It is awesome,” he says. “I’m amazed that it’s working out. As is Don, my parents, and everybody involved,” he adds, again, laughing.
Today Matt, Molly and their three boys, Sheldon (11), Thaddeus (9) and Roger (6) live in Haddam Neck, Conn., on an acre of land with six acres of fields behind it and woods behind that — a far cry from their home in Philadelphia with houses 15 feet from each other. And they know most everyone. “Everybody in town jokes that [the town] is a throwback to the 1950s,” he says. “It’s a great town in that the relationships are cross-generational.”
His wife homeschools their children, which allows the entire family to travel together when Matt teaches plane using and making across the United States. Matt keeps defined shop time — 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays plus a half day on Saturdays. Often, he’ll tack on another few hours after dinner.
The family’s lifestyle allows for frequent contact, despite Matt’s sometimes long hours. The morning of our interview Matt’s son Thaddeus was in Matt’s shop, making a little handheld crossbow. “I tried to encourage him to make something [with me] so he learns about grain direction and everything else because he had it all backwards and it will break this afternoon,” Matt says. “One of these days he’ll sit down and we’ll go through the process but he’s more interested in making it at this point than learning. He’ll eventually learn through failure.”
Matt averages two planes a day, although he doesn’t work from beginning to end on two each day. “It doesn’t get tiring,” he says. “I will say that when I started doing this I was concerned of when it would get tiring but I don’t foresee it. … Whether I’ll be doing this for 10 years or 20 years is to be determined, but I’m still fascinated with the tools, I still like making the tools. Every tool that I send out, every one is the best one that I’ve ever made. It’s still pretty neat. I’m fascinated with what the tools can do and I’m fascinated with what people can do with them.”
Matt also is one of the four members of the Haddam Neck Woodworkers’ Guild, which meets any time there’s a fire call or medical call during the middle of the day, because they all also are volunteer firefighters (and the only people in town during the day). They also meet every Tuesday night, and given that they’re all professional woodworkers they make it a rule that on Tuesday nights they can only work on projects for themselves. Matt is currently trying to inspire himself to build a highboy.
In addition to traveling in conjunction with teaching gigs, Matt and his family enjoy skiing. They visit Vermont a lot. Matt swims every morning. He coaches a Little League team, despite never having played baseball in his life. Matt’s oldest son, Sheldon, enjoys shooting so the two go shooting every Friday together. “He’s better than I am, so it’s getting less fun for me,” Matt says, laughing. He wants to make a grandfather clock someday.
Matt published his book, “Mouldings In Practice,” with Lost Art Press in 2012. “I became aware of hollows and rounds as a means to being able to do anything and once the tools are in your shop you soon realize that just because they can do anything doesn’t mean you’re able to do anything,” he says.
An article in Fine Woodworking in the 1980s by Graham Blackburn was one of the only how-to articles Matt remembers reading on the topic. And while Graham starts using a hollow on a square and using a round on a chamfer, Matt uses a round starting with a rabbet and then, being steered by the rabbet, uses the chamfer to guide the hollow. “The hollows and rounds are steered by the rabbets and the chamfers and you get a much more predictable, desirable result,” Matt says. “I’m not really sure how I came up with it. I’ve always just been somebody who learns in their basement and so I never really took any woodworking classes or was involved in reading about it on the internet. I was just somebody who went home and figured stuff out in my basement. My table saw safety probably leaves a little to be desired and the same with some other tools.”
Going back to how he came up with his hollows and rounds method, Matt says “I think I probably did Graham Blackburn’s method, the way he teaches it, and I probably did it backwards one time and maybe just dumbed my way into it.”
Matt began using his method regularly, and then began explaining his method to customers. Don McConnell (a partner planemaker with Larry at Old Street Tool Inc.) came out with a DVD using hollows and rounds in a similar fashion — which to Matt, verified his method.
“Everybody has different methods,” Matt says. But he hopes the way he describes his method simply allows a newcomer to hollows and rounds to produce desirable and repeatable results. “The more somebody uses the process and uses the tool the less I imagine they’ll follow the exact process that I describe in the book just because the more experience you have with the tool, the more adept you become at steering the tool and manipulating the profile the way you want.”
For now, Matt is content making planes and teaching. He has no plans to make furniture for a living, calling it a tough game. But he’s intrigued about the idea of someday working with architects on custom moulding. “Everything is a stock 45°,” he says. “I think for a nominal amount more somebody who is involved in that trade and has customers that are looking to invest [a lot of money] in something, to actually present them with different profiles and show them something truly custom for their house — that would be interesting.”
Which, in many ways, is exactly what Matt did, for himself.
“Live and let live,” he says. “I don’t know what makes you happy more than you know what makes me happy. To grant that permission and freedom to somebody is really what’s important to me.”
— Kara Gebhart Uhl